The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: It’s All About the Land

You Can’t Say We Didn’t Know:
Some Perspectives on Israel, Palestine, and the Conflict

Episcopal Bishop’s Committee for Israel/Palestine
Diocese of Olympia
October 2016

By Rennie Coit

One hundred years ago, there were no countries in the Middle East. Palestine, like the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire, as it had been for 400 years.[1] The law came from Constantinople and was administered locally by appointed governors and influential families. At that time, Palestine was inhabited by about 850,000 people, roughly 75% Muslim, 15% Christian, and 10% Jewish. Of the 85,000 Jews, about 50,000 were Palestinian, with the remaining 35,000 being recent immigrants from Europe, the vanguard of the Zionist movement. The majority of the population lived in the coastal valleys where water was relatively plentiful, far fewer lived in the rugged hills around Jerusalem. There was a generally stable coexistence among the various peoples and faiths, as there had been for centuries.

World War I changed everything. At the close of the war, Britain and France divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, creating multiple territories under “mandate” rule with the promise of future independence, most of which have become the states we now recognize in the Mideast. In fact, Palestine is the only mandate territory that has not yet achieved its full independence. While promising independence to Palestine and the other mandate territories, Britain also aligned itself politically with the Zionist movement in Britain, supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, yet admonishing that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the . . . rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”


Britain’s administration of Mandate Palestine was problematic from the start, and ultimately unsuccessful in creating a viable state under its auspices. Fundamentally, Britain was unable to find a way to manage the influx of European Jewish refugees in a region already populated by Palestinians. A number of plans were put forward attempting to divide the region into two states — for example, the 1937 Peel Partition Plan allocated 25% of Palestine to a nascent Jewish state — but all such plans failed to gain acceptance, neither with the European Jewish immigrants nor with the indigenous Palestinians. The reasons for those failures are many, but chief among them are that all proposed plans required significant dispossession and relocation of the indigenous Palestinian population. Furthermore, Britain failed to establish even a rudimentary Palestinian government that might have represented the interests of the people.

In 1947, the UN Partition Plan approved the establishment of the State of Israel, giving Israel control of 56% of the territory in Mandate Palestine, including most of its arable land. At that time, Jews constituted 33% of the population of Palestine but owned less than 10% of the land. Immediately after the UN vote, civil war broke out in the newfound State of Israel. In 1948, the war expanded to a regional conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. When the war ended and armistice agreements were signed in 1949, Israel had expanded its control to 78% of Mandate Palestine territory, and 750,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled from their homes in Israel — an event the Palestinians call “al-Nakba,” (“the Catastrophe”). As a symbolic gesture, many Palestinians still carry the keys to the homes they left behind, to which they have never been able to return.

The 1949 Armistice established the internationally recognized border of Israel, referred to as the “Green Line.” The remaining 22% of Mandate Palestine territory comprised the West Bank and Gaza. Between 1949 and 1967, the West Bank was annexed by Jordan and Gaza was administered by Egypt. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel conquered the remaining territory of Palestine, expelling Egypt from Gaza, extending its control to Sinai, and expelling Jordan from the West Bank. Since 1967, Israel has held Gaza and the West Bank under military occupation.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to maintain absolute control over it, strictly limiting the movement of goods, services, and people into and out of Gaza, essentially keeping it under siege. Israel maintains a full military presence in the West Bank, although there are regions under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli policy encourages Jewish Israelis to settle in the West Bank, providing settlers with tax incentives, stipends, and additional funding from overseas donors. Settlements are built on land appropriated by the Israeli government, often dispossessing local Palestinians. At present, there are over 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank in areas under strict military control, covering 36% of the West Bank. This leaves only 14% of the former Mandate Palestine under nominal Palestinian control.[2]

Presently about 9.3 million Palestinians live in Palestine or neighboring Jordan, with another 1.7 million scattered throughout the world. Of the 6.1 million who live in Palestine, 2.7 million live in the West Bank, 1.7 million in Gaza, and 1.7 million in Israel, where they represent 21% of the population. Within the borders of the old Mandate Palestine, there are roughly equal numbers of Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

Going forward, Israel has three options, all politically difficult. (1) Israel could maintain a Jewish-majority democracy within the Green Line borders and allow the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the “two-state solution.” This would involve substantial security issues, and would require removing the Israeli settlers from appropriated land in the West Bank. (2) Israel could extend its borders to roughly those of the old Mandate Palestine, “Eretz Israel” (“Greater Israel”) in a one-state solution. If Israel were to maintain itself as a nominal democracy, Israeli Jews would become a minority, with the dream of a Jewish-majority state succumbing to the tide of demographic change. (3) Israel could pursue a one-state solution, but abandon its stated commitment to democracy, which would perpetuate the current conflict by replacing the military occupation of Palestine with its political subjugation.[3]

[1] We follow the UN terminology for the region. “Palestine” refers to the former British Mandate Palestine, the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, bounded to the north by Lebanon and Syria, and to the south by Sinai. “Israel” refers to the modern State of Israel, whose internationally-accepted borders, the “Green Line,” were established by armistice after the 1947–49 War. “Occupied Territories” refers to those areas of Palestine under Israeli military occupation, currently Gaza and the West Bank.
[2] Graphic courtesy of Noorovers,
[3] For an excellent primer on the history of the conflict, see: Martin Bunton, The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013).